Yale-Edinburgh Group
on the History of the Missionary Movement
and Non-Western Christianity

Consultations sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, Yale Divinity School, and the Overseas Ministries Study Center

Theme for the 2008 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting
New College, University of Edinburgh, 3-5 July 2008


"Yes, from Norse Odin to English Samuel Johnson, from the divine founder of Christianity to the withered Pontiff of Encyclopedism, in all times and places, the Hero has been worshipped."

In this way Thomas Carlyle sets out his stall for his lectures on Heroes and Hero Worship, acknowledging that at the time he wrote (the 1830s) hero worship was out of fashion. Then as now, contemporary taste cut down the Great Man (and no doubt the occasional Great Woman) with whom Carlyle identified the Hero, to a more comfortable size. In surveying the Hero as Divinity,Prophet, Poet, Priest, Man of Letters and King, he does not mention the Hero as Missionary. Nor does he consider the Hero's obverse, the Villain; though if, as Carlyle argues, the Hero is above the normal run of humanity, a sort of divinity, the Villain must be beneath it, a sort of demon.

Missionary heroes in a sense that Carlyle would have recognized have arisen from time to time. Francis Xavier was perhaps the first; David Livingsone, within Carlyle's lifetime, became the Victorian version, an international missionary celebrity. Perhaps the last of the vintage was the eccentric and rough-tongued Mary Slessor, whose portrait, alongside a map of the Cross River area of Nigeria, still appears on a Scottish banknote. It is also possible to trace the hero theme in the literature of and about missions. In what might be designated the era of the Boys' Own Paper, a literary genre emerges that features missionaries essentially as figures in an adventure story. The genre succeeded (and partly secularized) but never quite superseded an older tradition of writing that viewed the missionary vocation (so often in early days a path to sickness and early death) as the ideal of Christian consecration. David Brainerd and Henry Martyn became missionary icons primarily because they were heroes of the spiritual life. The less adventurous conditions prevailing after the First World War produced missionary icons of another kind. They included so atypical a missionary as Albert Schweitzer, - highly unorthodox theologian and world famous organist turned medical missionary in Gabon, But, significantly, figures from Africa and Asia also begin to emerge as the new icons - Pandita Ramabai, Toyohiko Kagawa, J E K Aggrey.

But mission literature offers only one of several streams of discourse. The archives show that missionaries had their own heroes, and their own villains. Local society frequently provided both; both were also often found among figures, past and present, associated with that society's religion. Colonial government and administration provided both heroes and villains, and it would be possible to construct a whole demonology of the white trader. There were heroes - and sometimes villains - in the local church, and among mission staff, not to mention those in other missions, or in the mission board at home. And each of these entities - host society, colonial establishment, expatriate trader, local church, mission board, not to speak of the lobbyists and journalists far away, have their own discourse of heroism and villainy, in which missionaries, individually or generically, and the work of missions, regularly figure.

In short, the theme of Heroes and Villains seems to offer a well-placed window through which to view the history of missions and of non-Western Christianity, and papers related to this theme are invited for next year's meeting of the Yale-Edinburgh Group. Whoever the heroes and villains are perceived to be, and whether the heroism or villainy be actual or rhetorical, they may help us to deepen our understanding of the processes at work in the history of missions and of non-Western Christianity.

We look forward to our meeting at Edinburgh, 3-5 July 2008.